Your boss consistently asks you at the last minute to come into work on the weekend. You say “yes” every time even though you have family plans. You stew with resentment as you pore over TPS reports on a Saturday.
You order an expensive steak at a restaurant, but when the waiter brings it to you it’s way over-cooked. When he asks, “How is everything?” you respond, “Fine,” while you glumly saw your charred hunk of meat.
You want to take a jiu-jitsu class, but you don’t think your wife will be too happy with you spending an hour or two every week away from your family, so don’t you even mention the idea to her.
Your neighbor lets his dogs bark all night, and it’s keeping you from sleep. Instead of talking to him about it, you bad-mouth him to your friends on Facebook.
If any of these situations hits close to home, then you’re likely one of the legions of men who suffer from “Nice Guy Syndrome” – a set of personality, attitude, and behavioral traits described by Dr. Robert Glover, author of No More Mr. Nice Guy.
Nice Guys take a passive approach to life and relationships. Instead of standing up for themselves, they let others walk all over them. They’re pushovers and perennial People Pleasers. Nice Guys have a hard time saying no to requests — even unreasonable ones. They’re considerate to a fault. When they want or need something, they’re afraid to ask for it because they don’t want to inconvenience others. Nice Guys also avoid conflict like the plague. They’d rather get along than get ahead.
At first blush, Nice Guys seem like saints. They appear generous, flexible, and extremely polite. But if you scratch beneath the surface, you’ll often find a helpless, anxious, and resentful core. Nice Guys are often filled with anxiety because their self-worth depends on the approval of others and getting everyone to like them. They waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to say no to people and even then, often end up still saying yes, because they can’t go through with it. They don’t feel they can go after their true desires, because they’re locked into doing what others say they should do. Because “go with the flow” is their default approach to life, Nice Guys have little control over their lives and consequently feel helpless, shiftless, and stuck. They’re also typically resentful and vindictive because their unspoken needs aren’t being met and they feel like others are always taking advantage of them – even though they’re the ones who allow it to happen.
In worst-case scenarios, the Nice Guy’s pent-up resentment from being pushed around will result in unexpected outbursts of anger and violence. He’s a volcano waiting to erupt.
So what’s a Nice Guy to do? How can he regain some control over his life and quit being such a pushover?
Some Nice Guys think the solution is to swing to the other extreme and go from being passive to aggressive. Instead of meekly submitting, they feel like they have to dominate in every situation. They seek to get their way in everything, no matter what.
Aggressiveness, while definitely appropriate in some instances, particularly those involving out-and-out competition, isn’t a very productive communication or behavior style in most cases. In fact, using a persistent, aggressive communication style can often backfire by creating resentment and passive-aggressive behavior in the very people you’re trying to control.
Instead of passivity and aggressiveness, the best approach lies somewhere between the two. The sweet spot for communication and behavior is called assertiveness.
Assertiveness: The Golden Mean Between Passivity and Aggression
You might associate the term “assertiveness” with training courses that women take to learn to be more confident in traditionally masculine workplaces.
But in the past few decades, as men have been taught to smooth over their rough edges — to be less pushy, more sensitive, and more collaborative — a lot of guys have gotten confused as to where to draw the line between aggression and passivity. Anxious to not come off as overbearing, and even sexist, they tend to err on the side of the latter. They’ve lost the ability to navigate between those two rocky shoals, and as a result, many men need to learn, or re-learn, how to be assertive.
So what does it mean to be assertive?
In a nutshell, assertiveness is an interpersonal skill in which you demonstrate healthy confidence and are able to stand up for yourself and your rights, while respecting the rights of others.
When you’re assertive, you are direct and honest with people. You don’t beat around the bush or expect people to read your mind about what you want. If something is bothering you, you speak up; if you want or need something, you ask. You do all this while maintaining a calm and civil demeanor.
Assertiveness also requires an understanding that while you can make a request or state an opinion, others are well within their right to say no or disagree. You don’t get upset or angry when that happens. You stay in control and work to come to some sort of compromise. When you’re assertive, you understand that you might not get what you want. You’ll learn, however, that it not only doesn’t hurt to ask, but actually helps to ask as well:
The Benefits of Assertiveness
Your relationships will improve. Researchers who study marriage and relationships have found that assertiveness is one of the key attributes that both partners need in order for a relationship to be strong and healthy. If one person feels they aren’t getting their needs met, resentment for their partner ensues (even if it’s the person’s fault for not letting their needs to be known).
You’ll feel less stressed. Studies have shown that individuals who undergo assertiveness training experience less stress than individuals who don’t. When you’re assertive, you say no to requests that would otherwise spread you too thin. You also lose the anxiety and worry that comes with being overly pre-occupied with what others will think of your choices/preferences/requests/opinions. You feel in control of your life.
You’ll gain confidence. When you’re assertive, you have an internal locus of control. Your attitude and behavior are governed by your own actions or decisions, not the actions and decisions of others. Knowing that you can make changes to improve your own situation is a big-time confidence booster.
You’ll become less resentful. As you become more assertive, your relationships will become more enjoyable. You’ll no longer have to swallow the bitter pill of resentment when you say yes to a request or decide to do a favor for someone. When you do something, you do it because you actually want to do it, or you’re okay with doing it as part of the natural give and take of relationships.
How to Be More Assertive
Creating the Assertive Mindset
In my experience, becoming more assertive first requires you to change your mindset. You need to get rid of any limiting or incorrect beliefs that are holding you back from being assertive. Here are a few suggestions to get your mindset in the right place.
Set boundaries. The first step in becoming less of a pushover is establishing boundaries. Boundaries are rules and limits that a man creates for himself that guide and direct others as to what’s permissible behavior around him. Passive men typically have no boundaries and allow others to walk all over them.
Men’s counselor and author Wayne Levine calls boundaries N.U.Ts, or Non-negotiable, Unalterable Terms. Your N.U.Ts are the things you’re committed to: your family, your health, your faith, your hobbies, your psychological well-being, etc. According to Levine, “N.U.T.s are the boundaries that define you as man, those things which, if repeatedly compromised, will gradually—but assuredly—turn you into a pissed-off, resentful man.”
If you don’t know what your N.U.Ts are, take some time to figure it out. Once you do, make a commitment from here on out that you’ll never compromise them.
Take responsibility for your own problems. Nice Guys wait around for someone else to fix their problems. An assertive man understands that his problems are his responsibility. If you see something that needs changing in your life, take action. If you’re not happy with something in your life, start taking steps — however small — to change things.
Don’t expect people to read your mind. Nice Guys expect others to recognize what they need and want without having to say a word. Until a mass mutation occurs that allows telepathy or our brains become connected to the Borg, mind reading isn’t possible for the foreseeable future. If you want something, say it; if something bothers you, speak up. Never assume that people know your every need or want. It’s not as obvious as you may think.
Understand you’re not in charge of how others feel or behave. Both passive and aggressive men share a similar problem: they both think they’re in charge of how others feel or behave — they just go about it differently.
An aggressive man assumes responsibility of others’ behavior and emotions by exerting his will through physical, mental, and emotional force.
A passive man assumes responsibility of others’ behavior by constantly submitting his will to the will of others. Passive men feel it’s their job to make sure everyone is happy, even if that means they themselves are miserable.
An assertive man recognizes that it’s not his job to control or worry about others’ behavior and that he’s only responsible for how he behaves and feels. You won’t believe how much less stress and anxiety you’ll feel once you understand this. You’ll no longer spend wasted hours wringing your hands worrying about whether someone will be happy with your choice or opinion.
This isn’t to say that you should be an inconsiderate jerk and shouldn’t take into account the feelings/situations of others. It just means you don’t need to go overboard and be so overly considerate that you don’t make any requests or stand up for your values lest you upset or offend someone. Let them decide whether to be upset or offended. That’s their responsibility, not yours.
You are responsible for the consequences of your assertive words/actions. Asserting yourself will likely ruffle feathers, and there might be unpleasant consequences. But part of being assertive is taking responsibility for those consequences, come what may. Dealing with those consequences is far better than dealing with those of living an anxious, thwarted life.
Assertiveness takes time. Don’t think you’ll magically become assertive simply by reading this article. Assertiveness takes time and practice. You’ll have good days and bad days. Just be persistent with your efforts; it will pay off.
Listen to my podcast about overcoming nice guy syndrome:
Assertiveness in Action
Once you have the mindset, here’s how to actually start being assertive.
Start small. If the thought of standing up for yourself makes you downright nauseous, start with low-risk situations. For example, if you order a burger, and the waiter brings you a grilled cheese, let him know the mistake and send it back. If you’re out running errands on the weekend with your wife and are trying to decide on a place to eat, don’t just automatically defer, but chime in as to where you’d like to go.
Once you feel comfortable in these low-risk situations, start upping the ante little by little.
Say no. In your quest to become more assertive, “no” is your best friend. Start saying no more often. Does a request conflict with a personal boundary? Say no. Schedule already full? Diga, “No, gracias.” You don’t have to be a jerk when you do it. It’s possible to be firm and resolute with your no while being considerate. At first, saying no may make you very anxious, but eventually it will come to feel good, and actually quite freeing.
Will some people be disappointed when you turn them down? Probably. But remember that as long as you express your needs in a considerate way, you’re not responsible for their reaction. No need to feel guilty for treating yourself like their equal.
Use assertive communication. Be simple and direct. When you’re asserting yourself, less is more. Keep your requests and preferences simple and direct. No need for elaborate explanations (see below) or meandering wind-ups. Just politely say your piece.
Use “I” statements. When making a request or expressing disapproval use “I” statements. Instead of saying, “You‘re so inconsiderate. You have no idea how hard my day at the office was. Why would you ask me to do all these chores?” say, “I’m exhausted today. I understand you want these things done, but I’m not going to be able to get to them until tomorrow.” Other examples of “I” statements:
- “You’re so needy and controlling.” “I feel frustrated when you make me feel guilty for hanging out with my friends.”
- “You always humiliate me when we visit your parents.” “I feel embarrassed when you insult me in front of your folks.”
- “Your demands are unreasonable!” “I’d prefer that you give me at least three days’ notice before asking me to come in on the weekend.”
When crafting your “I” statements, be careful not to embed accusations or try to interpret the person’s behavior. That will just make them defensive and cause them to shut down. Examples:
- “I feel like you’re purposely being a jagweed just to get on my nerves.”
- “I think you’re trying to pick a fight.”
Don’t apologize or feel guilty for expressing a need/want/right. Unless you’re asking for something that’s patently unreasonable, there’s no reason to feel guilty or ashamed for expressing a need or want. So quit apologizing when you make a request. Just politely ask for it and wait to see how the other person responds.
Nice Guys will feel guilty even when expressing dissatisfaction with something they’re paying for! If a contractor hasn’t done the work he agreed to do, it’s your right to ask that it be fixed. It has nothing to do with being polite or not hurting his feelings – it’s just business and that’s how it works.
Use confident body language and tone. Look confident when making a request or stating a preference. Stand up straight, lean in a bit, smile or keep a neutral facial expression, and look the person in the eye and maintain eye contact. Stay calm. Breathe normally. Also be sure to speak clearly and loudly enough to make your point. Passive folks will tend to whisper and mumble when making their opinions or needs known; that will only serve to frustrate the other person.
You don’t have to justify/explain your opinion/choices. When you make a decision or state an opinion that others don’t agree with, one way in which they’ll try to exert control over you is to demand that you offer a justification for your choice/opinion/behavior. If you can’t come up with a good enough reason (in the other person’s eyes) you’re supposed to go along with what they want.
Nice Guys — with their need to please — feel obligated to give an explanation or justification for every. single. choice they make, even if the other person isn’t asking for it. They want to make sure that everyone is okay with their choices — essentially asking for permission to live their life the way they want. Don’t operate like that.
Rehearse. Play out the scenario in which you plan to assert yourself. Sure, it’s goofy, but practice what and how you’ll say in front of a mirror. It helps.
Be persistent. You’ll sometimes face situations when people will shoot you down the first time you make a request. Don’t just throw up your hands and say, “Oh well, there’s nothing I can do about it. At least I tried.” Sometimes to be treated fairly, you’ve got to be persistent. Remain cool, calm, and collected during this process. For example, if you call customer service and they won’t help you with your problem, ask if you can talk to their manager. Or if you get bumped off a flight, keep asking about other options, like getting transferred to another airline, so you can make it to your destination on time.
Be wary of the advice you find in some books on assertiveness that suggest you keep asking the same thing over and over and over again until the person relents and gives you what you want. That’s not being persistent, that’s being a pest.
Stay calm If someone disagrees or expresses disapproval of your choice/opinion/request, don’t get angry or defensive. Either give a constructive response or decide not to engage with the person any further.
Pick your battles. A common mistake many people make who are on the path to being more assertive is to try to be assertive all the time. Assertiveness is situational and contextual. There may be cases when being assertive won’t get you anywhere and taking a more aggressive or passive stance is the better option.
How do you know when you should or shouldn’t assert yourself? You’ll need to figure that out through practice and exercising some practical wisdom.
Dr. Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons, authors of Your Perfect Right, provide a few questions to consider before choosing to be assertive:
- How much does it matter to you?
- Are you looking for a specific outcome or just to express yourself?
- Are you looking for a positive outcome? Might asserting yourself make things worse?
- Will you kick yourself if you don’t take action?
- What are the probable consequences and realistic risks from your possible assertion?
How to Deal With People Who Are Used to Mr. Doormat
If you’ve been a pushover for most of your life, the people around you will likely resist your efforts to become more assertive. They’re used to you being a doormat and are comfortable with a relationship dynamic that has you in the passive role. Don’t get angry or frustrated if your family, friends, and co-workers question or even try to thwart your new assertive approach to life. That’s a completely normal response. Just remember that while the short-term kerfuffles that come with being assertive may be annoying and awkward, you and those around you will be better off in the long-run.
At times, you certainly do need to suck up your feelings and just do it. Perhaps it’s doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, or even finishing that TPS report. However, learning to voice your opinions, and more importantly, respect the validity of those opinions and wants, will serve to make you a more confident man. The result of an assertive action may be getting exactly what you want, or a compromise, or a rejection, but regardless of the outcome, it will lead to you feeling more in control of your life. Start small, learn how to state your wishes, and make assertiveness a part of who you are.
We can all think of the people around us who we know to be assertive. With a little bit of practice and training, you can be that man that people think of and look to when they need something taken care of.
The Assertiveness Workbook (best book on assertiveness that I read; highly recommended)
When I Say No, I Feel Guilty (not that great; suggests some questionably manipulative tactics to get your way)
No More Mr. Nice Guy (great book; I know a lot of AoM readers have benefited from it; essentially assertiveness training for dudes)